University of Utah students would pay an additional $12 million in tuition costs next year if the school’s maximum request for a hike is approved.

And most of that increase would go toward hiring more faculty and funding raises for professors and administrators.

“That’s our biggest expense,” said Cathy Anderson, the school’s chief financial officer, during a presentation Tuesday to the U.’s board of trustees. “When we look at our biggest resource it is staff.”

The state’s flagship university, tucked in the foothills of Salt Lake City, has 33,000 students and 23,700 employees. In the last year, the influx of new faculty members outpaced new students nearly three to one, based on institutional data.

For its part, the U. has proposed a tuition increase of up to 3.9 percent, which for most in-state students would mean an additional $156 per semester and a total annual cost of $8,309. The percentage increase is the same as the past three years, slightly higher than 2015-2016 and part of at least a decade of hikes.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Even when the percentage is the same, the dollar amount gets larger each year because the hike is applied to already increased tuition from the previous year. In 2018, it was $150 extra per semester.

Of the additional funds raised from the tuition increase for the 2019-20 school year, roughly $3 million would be allocated for the U.'s share of faculty compensation increases required by the state and $4 million for equity and merit-based salary increases determined by the U.

“Some of our employees are not paid much more than minimum wage,” Anderson said.

In addition to the salary increases at the U., $1.4 million would go toward “student success,” including academic advising and career services. And $1 million would go toward increasing campus safety after a student was killed outside her dorm last fall.

The school’s trustees gave the initial OK to the plan Tuesday. It will still have to be approved by the state’s Board of Regents before it can take effect. And it’s likely that will be a tougher process this year.

The board was grilled in an audit last year for approving tuition increases for the state’s eight public colleges with little or no scrutiny. In response, it has changed its system.

Previously, there was a uniform percentage increase for all the colleges it oversees. That “tier one” increase covered inflation and staff compensation. Individual universities could then lobby for an extra “tier two” increase to include more expenses, such as the construction of a new stadium. (The University of Utah, for example, asked for and received the largest additional increase for the 2018-2019 school year, raking in $7.6 million on top of the first tier.)

Now, each university will instead be required to present an individualized request for a tuition change during a public hearing at the end of the month. Board members will listen to the proposals, review them and then approve a percentage increase they deem appropriate for the institution.

So far, the U.’s proposal falls in the middle of the pack. The school with the largest enrollment — Utah Valley University in Orem — is asking for an increase between 2 to 5 percent. And Utah State University in Logan is requesting 3 to 3.75 percent.

The requests are complicated by the Legislature being slow to act on finalizing a budget this year. The U. is requesting the 3.9 percent increase if lawmakers don’t allocate significant funding to higher education this year. It might decrease its request in coming days, based on the Legislature’s final budget decisions. The same applies for the ranges provided by the other schools.

Currently, it appears the funding for state colleges will be lower than past years, with roughly $58 million total in the budget. That will likely push schools to keep their percentages high.

“There are still a lot of variables floating around,” said H. David Burton, chairman of the U.’s board of trustees.

U. President Ruth Watkins called the hike “relatively modest” compared to other schools in the PAC-12. But it has the highest public tuition in the state.

She said some of the money from past increases has been used to boost the retention rate of students and have more graduate. In 2011, the six-year graduation rate for the school was 55 percent. In 2017, it was 70 percent.

“We invest very, very heavily in the success of our students,” Watkins added, noting that is helped by investing in talented faculty.